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A practical guide to TPMS

Thursday, November 2, 2017 - 06:00
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Tire pressure monitoring systems (TPMS) have definitely become easier to work with since they were first introduced a few years back and that’s a good thing. Not only is it difficult to work around or “fool” a TPMS system (for whatever reason) but leaving the MIL illuminated isn’t just annoying — it may actually cause problems for customers since TPMS is a safety-related vehicle system that shouldn’t be disabled.

But even though TPMS systems have improved and become easier to service it still takes practical experience and knowledge to keep work problem-free and profitable.

Usually not what you want to see after service. In this case the light came on after 15 minutes of driving and went off when the vehicle was shut off – only to return once again when the vehicle was driven for another 15 minutes (a new sensor and relearn fixed the problem).

In particular, it’s important to know about the things that can make a big difference when servicing the systems such as how to program replacement sensors quickly and effectively and also knowing if the system will need anything done after a routine wheel rotation or general service – and if special tools to service the system are required. Guessing incorrectly can definitely cause expensive problems.

Additionally, understanding how to prevent common issues from ever occurring in the first place (such as using extra caution around known leak points and knowing the things that tend to seize together before they break off and need to be replaced) and also how to successfully deal with the things that do go wrong (like sensors that don’t work or warning lights that come on at strange times) can prevent simple service issues from ever becoming big, time-consuming, money-losing headaches.

And it’s not difficult at all.

With a bit of knowledge and experience – and of course, having the right tools and components at hand – servicing TPMS systems doesn’t need to be problematic.

General service

Until recently one of the most common concerns (or fears) about working on a vehicle with TPMS was that performing general tire services like rotating wheels or installing or removing seasonal tires would affect the TPMS system and illuminate the warning light. Fortunately this isn’t as much of an issue anymore.

This truck came in with its TPMS light on and a quick visual inspection found that in addition to the TPMS issue it was also time for new tires – well past time, actually.

No doubt it’s still important to know if the system needs to be reset after service (or if newly installed wheel sensors need to be programmed and if so, how) so that the warning light won’t illuminate a few minutes after the customer picks up the vehicle.

But in general now, (always check service information and be sure) if there’s just one warning light or message for the whole system, it’s fairly safe to assume that the individual sensors likely won’t need to be manually programmed to new positions if a wheel is moved to another position on the vehicle – so there’s not likely to be issues rotating tires (but always check service information to be sure because there are exceptions). And it’s generally safe to assume that if there’s a separate reading displayed for each wheel, the system may indeed need to be reset if the wheel moves from its original position (in other words, relearned after tire rotation). But, again, check service information and be sure.

Also fortunately, TPMS relearning and programming is relatively simple to manage with the programming tool. Even better, since many newer vehicles have modules that can determine wheel position without being manually reprogramed this is becoming less and less of an issue. But, again, always check and be sure – never just blindly trust that the system will adapt on its own. It may not, and the system may illuminate the MIL or not function correctly.

However, if the vehicle does indeed need to be relearned it’s important to note that the procedure for relearning a sensor’s position on the vehicle varies among vehicles and manufacturers, and though it’s typically done using the tool (as directed by service information and usually prompted by the tool) just as there’s no single way of resetting oil change reminder lights or of programming ignition keys there’s also no single way of resetting TPMS systems. Save time and headaches by checking service information and finding out ahead of time what needs to be done.

Doing a bit of research can definitely prevent time-consuming problems from developing.

Tires can normally lose about 1 psi of pressure per month. However, wheels with missing valve caps can lose considerably more.

Another common TPMS fear was causing problems when switching from winter to summer wheels (or vice versa) – and even this isn’t as much of a problem anymore.

Many customers now use “cloned” TPMS sensors which eliminate the need to program new sensors when the wheels are changed. Customers usually mention when their seasonal wheels have “cloned” sensors and thanks to Internet chat rooms and online parts distributers this practice is surprisingly widespread and can work well. If this is the case, as with any other TPMS sensor, ensure there are no leaks when the wheels are installed and then ensure the warning light isn’t illuminated after service. Hopefully there are no issues.

However, if the sensors on the seasonal wheels do need to be programmed one tip (from experience) to keep in mind is that it’s important to have patience and to perform the procedure exactly as indicated in service information – and also to understand that it may not work successfully the first time.

Unfortunately even though TPMS systems have improved some vehicles still need more than one programming attempt before the process is successful – which is unfortunately something that hasn’t changed.

If the same rim is being used and just the tires are being changed then (from experience) it’s important to ensure the sensor doesn’t break or get damaged during service and also to ensure that no new leaks are created during the installation process.

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